DATE February 20, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Alex Vernon and Greg Downey discuss their book,
which covers their part in the Persian Gulf War
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Ten years ago, the war in the Persian Gulf was under way. Air attacks had
been going on for more than a month and the ground war against Iraq would
begin on February 21st. In the ground war, which lasted four days, the
coalition's forces destroyed 363 of Iraq's armored vehicles and captured over
There's been much controversy since over whether the attack was stopped too
soon, and the recent bombing raid on Iraqi air defenses suggests that the
situation is still a long way from being settled. A new book about the Gulf
War, "The Eyes of Orion," was written by five lieutenants who were among the
first to drive their tanks into Iraq. Alex Vernon and Greg Downey are our
guests today. They spoke with NPR's Neal Conan for FRESH AIR. Conan reported
on the war for NPR and was held hostage by the Iraqi Republican Guard for four
The two biggest concerns the tank commanders had going into the ground war
were chemical weapons and the possibility of American forces firing on their
own. Greg Downey's platoon did face this friendly fire. Conan asked him how
they knew it was Americans and not the Iraqis.
(Excerpt from interview)
Mr. GREG DOWNEY (Co-author, "The Eyes of Orion"): Well, it's kind of ironic
that it's kind of like two competing basketball teams; one has a red jersey,
one has a green jersey. And that's basically the way we looked at the fire.
The tracers on the Iraqi weapons, the larger-caliber ammunition, was a green
tracer. Whereas, mostly, the coalition forces used a red tracer and that's
the phosphorus on the rounds.
So, you know, you try to keep it as simple as possible. Obviously, you want
to keep your situational awareness to the point where you know who's to the
front and who's to the rear of your unit. Now when you're a scout platoon,
that's a pretty easy thing to do because basically everything to your front is
enemy and, hopefully, nothing to your rear is enemy, but sometimes that may be
But in the friendly fire incidents that we did have, or did encounter, I could
tell immediately, especially at night when a good majority of our friendly
fire incidents happened--I could identify the round being fired as friendly
just due to the fact that I could see the tracer on it. And it would be
glowing bright red as it flew by. So that right there--you just try to keep
it as simple as possible and get it turned off as quickly as you can.
NEAL CONAN reporting:
Alex Vernon, you were in a tank platoon, commanding an M1A1 Abrams platoon.
You had some more existential concerns before even Operation Desert Shield
started. But when the moment came to cross the line and go into Iraq--I mean,
was there time to worry about those sorts of things?
Mr. ALEX VERNON (Co-author "The Eyes of Orion"): It's a pretty fascinating
phenomenon when you cross the border because, you're right, you don't have
time to worry about anything but the task at hand. And thinking back on the
behavior of my platoon--I mean, up until the moment we crossed, when we would
talk about what we might expect and we would go through battle drills and do
our training, my soldiers would always ask questions, and good questions, and,
`Why are we doing it this way and why are we doing it that way?' But as soon
as we crossed the border, everything that I said, they responded to instantly
and without hesitation. They just implicitly trusted that that's what had to
be done, they trusted me and they were as focused as I was on the task at
CONAN: That first night, after you crossed the border into Iraq, you describe
your tanks driving across the desert as if they were flying. What was that
Mr. VERNON: It's really interesting. Greg had the advantage and
disadvantage, as the scout platoon leader, of being up front. So he had to
navigate, which I do I not envy him for, in the middle of the night. But the
difference that I had was I had to maintain within a formation of several
hundred vehicles. Had to maintain my position, my platoon's position, my
company's position. I mean, it did feel like we were flying because we were
following in our place in the formation and my driver, who--was focused on
another vehicle in the formation and then when he couldn't see that, I was
trying to direct him as best I could. So it did feel like we were being
pulled along and we were flying and we were going as fast as the conditions
could permit, given the sand and the rain of that first night. So it
certainly did feel, in a sense, like we were flying, yeah.
CONAN: Greg Downey, before you served in the Bradley--in the scout platoon,
you, too, were a tank lieutenant and you have some remarkable things to say
about the M1A1 Abrams.
Mr. DOWNEY: It's a work of art. I was always fascinated with the complexity
of that combat vehicle and the ability of those engineers, whoever pieced that
together, to be able to combine--just as I liken it to a combination of a
heavyweight, lightweight boxer. Just because of the agility of that 70-ton
piece of steel--which, you know, you think about 70 tons of steel, you don't
really associate agility with that. But in the case of this, it had the brute
force to just take down a target but at the same time to be able to dance
around with it until the target exposed his chin, so to speak. I have a great
amount of respect for that vehicle and I think that's something,
that--hopefully, they will keep that vehicle around for a while and just
continue to improve upon it.
CONAN: In the beginning of the book "Eyes of Orion," you have a comment from
Mark Helprin, from a lecture at the US Military Academy back in 1992. `I
don't know how many of you have been in the presence of a main battle tank,'
he writes, `Or if you have, what you felt. I have an infantry man's view of
tanks. Which is to say, I've never been exactly comfortable with them. If
you're on one side of a village and a tank arrives on the other side, you feel
it before you see it. You feel it in your solar plexus and in the soles of
your feet. You would never think that something so massive could be so agile
as it smashes through walls and pulverizes bricks, the things you thought you
could hide behind. And then it slews its gun. The sound of the turret
turning is like the sound of death itself. That's one tank. In the Gulf War,
columns of armor rolled across the desert for days and days so vast and long
that the dust they raised could have been seen from the moon.' Alex Vernon,
you were in one of those columns of tanks and you too, describe the tank as a
thing of beauty.
Mr. VERNON: The M1 tank is an amazing piece of design. It is the perfect
marriage of form and function. It does exactly what it was designed to do
better than any other vehicle that I know of with that particular function.
The things that the fire system are able to handle has, for example, a wind
sensor that's constantly taking in wind data and feeding it into the computer
to adjust the round you put in. When you first get your rounds, you put into
the computer, even the production lot number for the rounds so it can adjust
for anything peculiar in the production of those particular rounds. It
accounts for so much and it's an amazing piece of equipment.
CONAN: I remember before the ground war started, one of the concerns was that
the M1A1 Abrams, which is a very complicated piece of machinery, that all of
this fancy stuff wouldn't work under the harsh conditions in the desert. As
it happened, however, Alex you have--I think it was you describing one scene
where you're feeling rounds ricocheting off your turret and describe how
comfortable you feel.
Mr. VERNON: Absolutely. And those were--the rounds I remember feeling were
small arms or they might have been shrapnel from mortar fire. And I was not
particularly concerned because you could hear them sort of bouncing off,
dinging off the side of the tank. I would want to be in no other place on a
battlefield besides being inside a tank. I mean, obviously, the
disadvantages--you're the vehicle everybody's gunning for. But the armor
protection on the M1 tank is pretty amazing. Unlike many other countries, the
M1 tank was designed with crew safety in mind largely. One example, the
rounds are stationed in a separate compartment behind the crew with doors that
separate the crew from the rounds. So if any kind of shrapnel or anything
gets into the rounds, they explode outward and not into the crew compartment.
CONAN: Greg Downey, as you approached the airfield that was your main
objective, and as it turned out the main battle that your unit fought, there
were a couple of extraordinary moments. The first of which, you found
yourself taking fire from Iraqi forces.
Mr. DOWNEY: Yes. That actually happened prior to the battle--the night
before the battle at Jalibah. And that was really the first significant
contact that my scout platoon had come under. It was mostly in the form of
artillery which, as I describe within the book, is quite harrowing simply
because you can't see exactly who is shooting at you and it's kind of a roll
of the dice on where you move next. It was a great baptism in fire for what
was to come the next morning. I think, in a way, it was kind of an ice
breaker for the platoon to go through simply because of the volume that we
received at the time.
CONAN: You write about it this way. You say, `Incoming artillery plays with
you. You never know where the next round will fall. I had terrible feelings
of paranoia, like somebody was looking at me through a pair of binoculars,
carefully plotting my location and calling for the next barrage, which was
exactly what was happening.'
Mr. DOWNEY: Yes, that's exactly what was happening. And to my surprise--not
that I underestimated the enemy--but to my surprise in the vast open desert,
with the lack of technology that I thought the Iraqi army had, whoever was
calling that artillery was very good. I would like to have met that person
just to see--obviously, a very competent soldier at what they did because they
were able to drop that artillery in such close proximity to myself and to my
CONAN: And what did you do?
Mr. DOWNEY: That's where training takes over. You know, the way I always
looked at it is try to keep things as simple and basic as possible in contact.
And you simply just reposition yourself and you continue to reposition
yourself until, hopefully at some point in time, you can either get a location
on the artillery itself, which is doing the firing, which is exactly what took
place. We have this nice little thing called a counter battery radar in the
military which basically hones in on the artillery unit that is firing. And
then drops our own artillery on that to squelch their actions which,
thankfully for me, is exactly what was taking place. The battlefield is a
very dynamic thing. And the nice thing about it is, particularly in the US
Army, is you have redundant systems. And even though I was not concentrating
on shutting down their artillery, thank heavens for myself and my scout
platoon, somebody in the division was concentrating on that and was able to
redirect some of our artillery on to their artillery pieces to shut them down.
CONAN: And there was a moment then not long afterwards in which you found the
positions reversed. You were in the position of the observer calling the
Mr. DOWNEY: Yes. And that's really the primary weapon of a scout, is the
use of artillery. The old adage is that you do not want to get into a direct
firefight with the enemy if you are a scout. Preferably, you use your radio,
your binoculars and that artillery unit that's 15, 20 kilometers behind you to
do the destruction that you need to do. Obviously, I like the advantage
better when I was doing the calling. You feel a little more in control of
your destiny and, really, that's what you're called upon to do as a scout
CONAN: The fire you called in was devastating.
Mr. DOWNEY: Very much so. At the time I was 25 years old, I had never, ever
witnessed the devastating effect that our artillery units could put down on
the enemy. Obviously, in training you try to replicate--you know, give the
soldiers an idea of what to expect. But until you see a battalion of
eight-inch artillery land or a battery of MLRS rockets impact and basically
take out a whole square kilometer, you really haven't lived until you've seen
that. And the first time you see it, it's an eye-opener. And that's from an
observer's standpoint. I couldn't imagine being the target of that just
because of the devastation. At that point in time, you really start to
respect the firepower that we have in our arsenal and that's just the
tactical-level stuff that we have. But it was something to see.
CONAN: You write about meeting an Iraqi captain who was one of the survivors
of a commando brigade that you'd called artillery on. And he said that only
49 of 650 men in that brigade had survived the attack. `I had called the
artillery that erased the lives of over 600 human beings. In 45 minutes, I'd
killed more people than what lived in my hometown of Merna, Nebraska.'
Mr. DOWNEY: Yeah. That's--you know, at the time, that's what I thought.
You know, the significance of it hit me. And that's something that at the
time--you know, you have the fog of war and you're, just as Alex stated,
you're focused on the task at hand. You don't put a lot of thought to it,
generally. As time goes on, obviously, you put more thought to it. And
looking back on it, it's still one of those things where it teaches you that
war is a horrific way to settle differences.
(End of excerpt)
BOGAEV: Greg Downey and Alex Vernon, lieutenants who fought in the Persian
Gulf War, speaking with NPR's Neal Conan. More of their conversation after
the break. This is FRESH AIR.
BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, we're featuring an interview NPR's Neal
Conan recorded with Alex Vernon and Greg Downey, who led platoons in the Gulf
(Excerpt from interview)
CONAN: ...(technical difficulties) in the unit that was involved in the
attack. And sort of on the opposite end, there is a moment where somebody
calls out and there's a missile coming towards you, a wire-guided missile.
Mr. VERNON: I'm not recalling that particular moment. I believe Greg was on
the receiving end of a wire-guided missile.
CONAN: That was you, too. I'm sorry.
Mr. DOWNEY: That was actually one of my scouts. Staff Sergeant Dean, who
was one of my scout section leaders, was moving up towards the airfield just
minutes prior to Alex and the rest of the tanks and Bradleys and the main body
of the battalion and the brigade rolling up there. And once again, you fall
back on training. Staff Sergeant Dean noticed a puff of smoke, which we had
trained for. Lucky for us, the missile moved much slower than what I had been
led to believe it would move. We were able to establish eye contact with the
missile itself, which helped us time our maneuver away from it. Proper
training. You know, there's one thing that I learned from the Gulf War is
that there's no sacrifice for hard work. That's what keeps you alive in
combat and, obviously, that's what all of our soldiers are trained to do and
they train hard to stay alive in combat and training does take over.
CONAN: Alex Vernon, in the attack on this airfield, this was the first time
that you knew that you were running up against a Republican Guard unit. The
Iraqis that you'd encountered before had been brushed aside easily and most of
them had rushed to surrender. This, you thought, was going to be different?
Mr. VERNON: Completely, we thought this was going to be different. But
there were certain things we did not know. We did not know, for example, that
when we were rolling up on them from the west, their entrenchments and their
weapons systems were facing toward the south. So we kind of rolled them up
from the side, which was quite nice. We did not really get--there was an
extensive artillery preparation of the airfield, as you can imagine, before we
rolled in, before the battle happened. And what we had found out afterwards,
what I found out from talking to other officers who interviewed prisoners and
from reading about it, is that the Iraqis thought that was yet another one of
the air bombing campaigns and they just assumed that once the bombings
stopped, the airplanes had gone away so they came out of their bunkers, having
had, you know, no idea that we were just--I don't know--200 meters away from
them coming down this rise.
CONAN: So you had scouts out but they didn't. They didn't know you were
Mr. VERNON: They had no idea we were there. Oh, no. And it's pretty--I
really didn't understand it, I don't think, until after the war when we found
some Iraqi vehicles and explored those vehicles and crawled around those
vehicles. And I could not imagine doing what we did, making the several
hundred kilometer trek through the middle of the desert, in the middle of
nowhere, with their equipment. I just don't think they could have done it.
And so I don't think they were able to put themselves in our shoes and sort of
conceive of that happening, that we would just appear in the middle of Iraq
like that without any warning whatsoever.
CONAN: Your concern all throughout the war and through Desert Shield earlier
was that you feared you were going to endanger your men as a leader, that you
weren't qualified to lead your platoon and you were going to get people
killed. Now you were coming up against the Republican Guard.
Mr. VERNON: Yeah. And it's probably a feeling that a lot folks have, a lot
of young lieutenants and officers, who--you step into the position and you're
a 23-year-old young man. And what I used to say at the time was that the
position of lieutenant needs the body of a 23-year-old but needs the maturity
of, like, a 35- or 40-year-old, given what--the responsibility that you're
asked to bear. And I was terrified of that. I was terrified that I would
make a mistake, that I would seize up, that I would do something.
I wasn't so worried at the time because, again, I had so many other things to
think about. I had several radio frequencies to monitor, I had my platoon
formation to control, the company formation behind me to control. So, again,
I wasn't that worried. And also you're pretty tired at that point as well.
We had been going for three days non-stop. I didn't have a whole lot of
energy to devote to worrying about my circumstances. We were there and the
only way we were going to get home was by going through that airfield and so
you focus pretty quickly.
CONAN: `Don't picture La Guardia,' you write. `There were two paved runways
with several hangars on both the north and south sides. A chain-link wire
fence surrounded the complex.' And you had your first decision to make, Alex,
shortly after you went through that fence. A bunker popped up unexpectedly
right in front of you.
Mr. VERNON: Right. There was bunker and it was probably, I don't know, 25
meters or so in front of me. And wasn't quite sure initially what to do. I
didn't have much time, didn't have may options. I could have, I guess,
fired--have my gunner fire his coaxial machine gun, which is mounted right
next to the main gun--shares the same sight system. Could have fired that
into the bunker but not sure what good that would have done.
So the instant decision that I made was to drive over the bunker and squash it
essentially, because I didn't want to bypass it. Because if there were people
inside, then suddenly--the most vulnerable part of the tanks are the
underbelly, the top of the tank and in the back. And if we had driven past
it, bypassed it, then that would have exposed the rear of our tanks to
anybody, who was, in fact, inside the bunker. So we just drove over it.
And I think probably one of the most underestimated capabilities of the
tank--especially for the public, who has, you know, very little experience
watching tanks in action--is called shock effect, which is just the shock, the
surprise, the panic that happens that Mark Helprin sort of described when
these 70-ton monsters are barreling down at you.
CONAN: Just terrifying. Not the long-distance killer that we sometimes
envision them as.
Mr. VERNON: Exactly. I mean, often that is a horrible way to do your job,
but sometimes driving over a bunker is certainly a way of getting it done.
(End of excerpt)
BOGAEV: Alex Vernon and Greg Downey, platoon leaders in the Gulf War 10 years
ago. They've contributed to the new book "The Eyes of Orion," about waging
war on Iraq. We'll hear more in the second half of the show. I'm Barbara
Bogaev and this is FRESH AIR.
BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev. Let's continue our interview
with Alex Vernon and Greg Downey. Ten years ago they were platoon leaders
during the ground war in the Persian Gulf. They've contributed to a new book
about the war, "The Eyes of Orion." They spoke with NPR's Neal Conan about
CONAN: Greg, you describe another incident where you're calling in artillery
fire--and I think this is the day after the battle at the airfield--and
describe yourself as feeling tremendously detached; that you really can't
connect that what you're doing is causing all of that to happen.
Mr. DOWNEY: Yeah. It is very surreal. The incident that you're describing
is the ammunition depot that was kind of an ad hoc mission that we were sent
on. And I remember looking through my binoculars and seeing the faces of the
soldiers that were in that ammunition depot as I was calling for artillery to
land on that depot, and seeing the fright in their faces and feeling very
detached from it. And I was just within shouting distance of these guys.
It's an awfully hard thing to imagine because it is so surreal. And I'm not
sure that the human mind is prepared to actually make sense of that. And also
due to the fact that this was the third day of the ground war, I think I had
slept a total of about--maybe eight hours in the span of four days at that
point. Your senses become a little bit dull after that point. And I think
that probably contributed to that also.
CONAN: Is there any moment when you feel like you've passed a test? When you
feel, `Well, you know, I'm a competent platoon commander. I'm a veteran. I
can do this'? Do you set series of hurdles for yourself? If I can do that,
then I'll be OK. Alex?
Mr. VERNON: Wow. I don't think so. I mean, just because--as I mentioned
before, you never quite know what's going to happen. And even having gone
through Jalibah and gone through that particular battle, as soon as Jalibah
was over, we were told that we were expected to run into another Republican
Guard division that was retreating sort of along the axis that we were
advancing on and we fully expected to have that encounter.
So perhaps we had gone through some sort of test by fire at Jalibah and yet
there was something else still to come. And in that particular case, that
Republican Guard unit retreating further north would have been headed into
us--pointed at us, not pointed away from us, as they were at Jalibah. So I
think maybe you do get to feel a little bit more confident. Maybe you do get
to feel like your soldiers are responding to your commands and that, you know,
you have an amazing piece of equipment underneath you. But at the same time,
everything going forward is still absolutely unknown.
CONAN: Greg Downey, accidents, of course, will happen in war. On the 2nd of
March, you were involved in an incident that I'm sure you've never forgotten.
Mr. DOWNEY: No. And I don't think it's intended to be forgotten. I think
there's a valuable point to be learned from that. Accidents do happen. And
that's about the only way that you can cope with something like that.
CONAN: Describe it for me.
Mr. DOWNEY: Oh, it hasn't gotten any easier over the past 10 years to think
about it. We were into the Rumaila oil fields, which was a congested,
built-up area. Something that we were very unaccustomed to after living in
the desert for the last seven months, where you have plenty of elbow room; you
have no buildings. And all of the sudden, we find ourselves in an urban
setting, which that in and of itself is a tanker's worse nightmare. And I'm
sure Alex will attest to that.
We rolled into the Rumaila oil fields after the cease-fire. And the standing
orders that we had in terms of engaging the enemy were that if the enemy
displayed any hostile acts, then we could fire back in self-defense. And the
word that I gave to my scout platoon is that, `OK, we know that there's a
cease-fire. However, the Iraqi army,' which at that time was dispersed all
throughout southern Iraq and Kuwait, `may not know that there is a cease-fire.
So do not endanger the lives of your soldiers,' because we had made it as far
as we had made it without any casualties.
We began our slow block-to-block reconnaissance through the Rumaila oil fields
and encountered abandoned vehicles. At least ones that we hoped were
abandoned, because it was getting very hard to determine which ones were
abandoned and which ones were not abandoned. And, of course, that's always a
concern. Just as we were rolling over a berm, a dike that was built up within
the Rumaila oil fields as some type of retainer or defensive position, we came
face to face with a Soviet-made BMP, which is their version of a Bradley. So
it's basically an infantry-type vehicle.
Unfortunately for us, that vehicle was manned and fired a round at my vehicle,
which missed. And myself and my wingman's vehicle began firing at that BMP
about the time that a red tomato truck come flying through the engagement area
too quick for us to stop firing. And did not give the truck driver enough
time to figure out what he was about to encounter.
Unfortunately, the red truck did travel through the impact area and rounds did
penetrate through the truck. To our terrible surprise, a family began to get
out of that truck. And it was an incident where, once again, training takes
over. And I think I was--it was kind of a bittersweet thing, because it was a
terrible thing to see that we had shot civilians inadvertently, but at the
same time, to see the response of the soldiers in the back of our
Bradleys--they jumped out to administer aid to those civilians, totally
disregarding their own safety because it was a hot battlefield at the time.
There were some small explosions still taking place. Some of the remnants
left over after the short, brief firefight that we had. But they were willing
to put themselves in jeopardy to administer aid and hopefully, you know,
attempt to save the lives of those civilians that found themselves at the
wrong place at the wrong time.
CONAN: `What I saw'--you wrote, `What I saw sickened me. An old man, two
women and six children jumped out of the burning truck.' And later you write
of the man who'd taken a round from your 25-millimeter chain gun. `I couldn't
take my eyes off him. His face was blue from his lungs giving up. I tried to
block it out, but the mental imprint it left would stay with me. He'd been
caught up in something out of his control and it cost him his life, as he
tried to protect the lives of his family. This was the lowest, darkest side
of combat. I wish I had not experienced it. This incident continues to haunt
me.' Is there anything, in retrospect--from reading it, it doesn't sound like
there was anything you could do.
Mr. DOWNEY: No. There really wasn't. And I think that's the hard thing.
You know, as officers and soldiers, one thing you always try to do is control
the variables on the battlefield. And this is a very dynamic battlefield, but
you do your best to control every variable that you can in order to get the
outcome in your favor. And I think that was the thing that really took me
aback was that--I sat there and I thought and I thought and I thought, `What
could we have done to have prevented that, to control that variable so that
didn't happen?' And, unfortunately, it was a teaching point. It was a
learning lesson for me--was that you can't control all the variables. If I
could have, I would have at that point so I wouldn't have to face up to
something like that for the rest of my life.
CONAN: It was also after the cease-fire. It must have seemed particularly
Mr. DOWNEY: Yes, it was. You know, a cease-fire is a wonderful thing as
long as it's abided by. And, you know, we had our strict orders on how to
react to the cease-fire, but it also shows that a cease-fire is no assurance
of personal safety for anyone on the battlefield. And I think this was a
great example of that.
BOGAEV: Greg Downey and Alex Vernon speaking with NPR's Neal Conan about
their experience leading platoons during the war in the Persian Gulf. We'll
hear more after the break. This is FRESH AIR.
BOGAEV: Back with Neal Conan's interview with Alex Vernon and Greg Downey,
who fought in the Persian Gulf War 10 years ago.
(Excerpt from interview)
CONAN: Alex Vernon, your division had done remarkable things in the 100 hours
of the Gulf War. What was your response? What was your reaction when you
learned that it was going to end?
Mr. VERNON: If you're talking about when the cease-fire was initially
called, which would have been 28 February, our time, I was very relieved. At
the same time, I was very cautious because we were 250 kilometers, 300
kilometers in Iraq and we knew Iraqi forces were retreating. As Greg said, we
did not know--given how shattered the Iraqi army command-and-control system
was, we did not know which units--which Iraqi units knew there, in fact, was a
cease-fire; knew, in fact, we were sitting in their backyard. And so I was
relieved a little bit and I was relieved, especially, because the morning of
the cease-fire we were on our way to run into--to attack a Republican Guard
division. We just knew it was right there in front of us.
But at the same time, I was very cautious and I saw my soldiers and other
soldiers around us starting to let down their guard a little bit; starting to
relax; wanting to explore bunkers and bring out souvenirs and trophies and
things. And that made me incredibly nervous because I knew it wasn't
quite--it felt--it was over, but it wasn't quite over and I did not know we
would end up in Iraq for another, I think, like, three weeks after the 28th,
patrolling the cease-fire area as well. So that was--and once we finally left
Iraq in the middle or late March, it still--it didn't feel safe, completely,
until we crossed over the berm into Saudi Arabia. And that's when I sort of
felt, `OK, it's done. It's over. There are no more surprises. We're going
CONAN: You write that the 100 hours into Iraq--`We stopped exactly when we
should have.' And, Alex, you quote a colleague, Jeannie Novak(ph), a
lieutenant who'd seen you off from the States and then later traveled with the
support battalion attached to the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division, `Thank
God we stopped when we did.' You quote her as saying, `We were too full of
success. There'd been too much winning.'
Mr. VERNON: Yeah. It's an interesting question and, obviously, the sort of
unending question, especially now that George W. has taken over the White
House and has inherited the problem of Iraq from his father. There have been
constant questions about whether we stopped when we should have. We were at a
point--and psychologically, we were at an interesting place because we had
been winning. And nothing--there were a few fratricide incidents, but nothing
had really sort of shattered our, I guess, psychological momentum, if you
At the same time, our logistical systems were starting to be stretched a
little bit thin. And, I mean, I'm certainly--I'm thankful we stopped when we
did. The mission was over. Hussein had started to leave Kuwait or had agreed
to leave Kuwait, was leaving Kuwait, and that was what we were there to do.
And anything else would have been much more difficult if we had tried to, you
know, remove him from power, go after Baghdad. That's an--A, the coalition
would have fallen apart; B, suddenly there's a moral ambiguity there because
now we're going after the sovereignty of Iraq, which is what he did with
Kuwait. Going to Baghdad, our logistical lines would have been stretched
thin. We would have had what--some sort of strange occupation-force mission
of Baghdad. I mean, there just--it's too many variables, too many question
marks. I think we stopped when we should have.
CONAN: Greg Downey, you didn't necessarily agree at that time.
Mr. DOWNEY: Well, I think it goes back to something that my father ingrained
in me at an early age, was to never leave the job unfinished. And, you know,
hindsight is always 20/20. But as the years have passed by, I guess the way I
look at it is, number one, has Iraq attacked into any sovereign country since
the end of the Gulf War? And the answer to that question is no. So did we
accomplish our mission there, which that was part of our mission--was to take
away their offensive capabilities. So I feel confident that we accomplished
our mission from that end.
The other question that I think needs to be asked is how many American
soldiers' lives are we willing to sacrifice to pursue Saddam Hussein and to
capture him? Five, a hundred, a thousand lives? If you remember Operation
Just Cause, a part of that mission...
CONAN: That was Panama and Manuel Noriega, yeah.
Mr. DOWNEY: Exactly. Exactly. And that became a subset of that mission,
was to capture Noriega. Now Panama's a pretty small country and he shacked up
in the papal ministry down there and, consequently, that's how we found
him--was through information that came from the papal ministry that that's
where he was at.
Hussein could have hid out for dozens of years and we could have spent dozens
of years looking for him. In fact, we could still be looking for him. And to
me, the tradeoff just wasn't worth it, because we would have lost more lives
in search of one person. And I think it all goes back to did we shut down his
offensive capability? And my answer to that question is, `Yes.' So mission
accomplished, in my eyes.
CONAN: Go ahead.
Mr. VERNON: If I could add to that, Greg. I mean, the question of
absolutely how many more American lives would have been risked going after
Hussein and perpetuating further destruction on his armed forces, the flip
side to that is how many Iraqi lives would also have been lost unnecessarily
when you've got retreating soldiers and civilians in the towns we would have
gone through? We're risking even more destruction and killing of folks who
are in no shape to fight, to resist. So I think it goes both ways.
CONAN: There's an extraordinary picture in the book "The Eyes of Orion,"
Iraqi soldiers posing on a T-72 tank prior to the ground campaign. This was a
photograph found on a captured roll of film that was developed. And I wonder,
as you look at those guys--and they don't look an awful lot different from
what American soldiers would be doing on top of an Abrams tank--you know, one
guy flashing the V for victory sign and a bunch of other people crowded around
a machine gun. Do you think about those soldiers today, Alex?
Mr. VERNON: I do. I remember doing the CSLAR at--one time. We would run
across some abandoned defensive positions and complexes and
occasionally--well, one time--usually, the infantry would go clear that
ground. But there was one time when my company commander allowed myself and a
couple of my soldiers to join infantry on the ground to sort of investigate.
And we would go into their little living areas in these bunkers and we would
see their footlockers and their clothes that they left. And in one case,
somebody discovered a diary from an Iraqi soldier. And when you're sort of
that up close to sort of being where they were living and trying to imagine
what they were living, going through with the air campaign--absolutely, I feel
Obviously, big differences between the Iraqi army and how they get their
troops and train them and how we acquire our troops and train them. But they
were human beings, and nobody wanted to be on the battlefield in terms of the
soldiers, but we were there. And so, yeah, I felt for them.
CONAN: Greg Downey and Alex Vernon, thank you very much.
Mr. DOWNEY: Thank you.
Mr. VERNON: Thank you.
(End of excerpt)
BOGAEV: Greg Downey and Alex Vernon contributed to the new book "The Eyes of
Orion" about the ground war in Iraq 10 years ago. They spoke with NPR's Neal
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: Coming up, the Vee Jay recordings of Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Jazz artists Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
At the end of the 1950s, the Chicago R&B and gospel label Vee Jay got into the
jazz business signing up local talents like saxophonist Addie Harris and the
quintet NJT Plus Three(ph). They also signed two young New Yorkers working
with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, trumpeter Lee Morgan and saxophonist Wayne
Shorter. Their Vee Jay sides are now being issued on two American labels.
Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead explains.
(Soundbite of "Blues a la Carte")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:
"Blues a la Carte," by tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter with Lee Morgan on
trumpet, 1959. A few years later, both these young lions would be much better
known. In 1964, Morgan would have a big jukebox hit with the "Sidewinder" and
Shorter would join Miles Davis, helping make his quintet one of the great jazz
groups. One reason for that was Shorter wrote them sleek tunes kind of like
that one. "Blues a la Carte" was on his auspicious debut introducing Wayne
Shorter. Back then, he was still digesting what he'd learned from John
Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, but he was already showing a gift for editing
himself as he improvised, valuing space as well as sound.
(Soundbite of "Harry's Last Stand")
WHITEHEAD: Wayne Shorter's "Harry's Last Stand" with Jimmy Cobb dropping
bombs at the drums, also from 1959. This music comes from the "Complete Vee
Jay: Lee Morgan-Wayne Shorter Sessions," a six CD box from the mail order
house Mosaic Records. Shorter made other nice albums for Vee Jay, but to
these ears, his first was a standout.
Trumpeter Lee Morgan had already made a few LPs and was fully developed as a
soloist when he began recording for Vee Jay in 1960. He was 21. Morgan could
mimic Miles Davis using a harmon mute. But when he really got rolling, the
mute sounded like it might pop out of the bell. You can hear Morgan's punchy
attack and amazing fluidity on his tune "Best."
(Soundbite of "Best")
WHITEHEAD: Didn't anyone tell Lee Morgan a trumpet's not supposed to do stuff
like that? But for all his virtuosity, he knew something about letting space
into a line, too. These records sound fresh 40 years on, thanks to deft
writing and excellent soloists, who also include Morgan's tenor saxophonist
Clifford Jordan and due to some great backing trios.
The late '50s and early '60s was a golden age for jazz rhythm sections with
pianists playing light chords and bluesy little figures, bass players thumping
away without booming amplifiers and drummers holding back but adding crisp
accents. Here's Wynton Kelly on piano with bassist Paul Chambers and drummer
Art Blakey on the same session.
(Soundbite of instrumental)
WHITEHEAD: Coincidentally, Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers share another new
Mosaic box of Vee Jay sessions. As usual with Mosaic, you get all available
master takes and alternates so you can hear the musicians coming to grips with
the material or trying different solo strategies. With Lee Morgan and Wayne
Shorter, they are only two or maybe three takes per piece so it's not too
In an unusual but legitimate double-dip situation, the Koch label is now
issuing much of the same material, most alternate takes included, on CDs
patterned on the old LPs with the original cover art and liner notes. So far,
they've put out half the stuff in the box, the albums "Here is Lee Morgan,"
the source of those last two numbers, and his "Expubadent(ph)" plus Wayne
Shorter's "Wayning Moments" alongside other good Vee Jay stuff. "Introducing
Wayne Shorter" is due out later in the year. But any way they slice it, this
stuff's as addictive as caffeinated chocolate nicotine.
BOGAEV: Kevin Whitehead is currently based in Chicago. He reviewed the
"Complete Vee Jay: Lee Morgan-Wayne Shorter Sessions" on the Mosaic label.
BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
BOGAEV: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.